Jeremy Olshan, who is the new editor of Marketwatch, gave an interview with Talking Biz News about the future of the business news site. One of the headline-grabbing comments he made was about the length of stories writers for his site would be filing:
We need to reshape how markets and financial stories are told to better reflect how they are consumed. What do I mean by that? Like most news sites, MarketWatch still leans too heavily on the 750-word story — a legacy of print newspapers that has outlived its usefulness. We want to go shorter – and longer. The majority of our stories will soon be under 400 words — breaking everything down into short bursts of news and insight that cut straight to what is most important to readers, without all the empty calories and filler journalists love to stuff in the sausage . We will also do longer, deep dives on important stories that warrant such treatment. This is the way the digital news is going: tall and venti, no more grande.
A few thoughts:
Naturally, my mind drifted to sports. And I think there's a real interesting idea here. My game stories used to run between 500-750 words for most basketball games. But there's something appealing about the idea of limiting game stories to 400 words. That was about the length I would write for a late-season baseball game for a team 20 games out of the playoffs. Maybe instead of all this talk about whether or not to kill the game story, we should instead be talking about evolving it. Make a game story - a recap - about 400 words. That would free up the beat writer to do more feature stories or analytical work - whether it's online or in print. Instead of focusing my energy on a long game story, I would have been able to write it quickly, and then spend more time reporting and writing something of deeper substance and value to my readers. I like the idea of going short or going long on stories. That's an interesting one.
I often wonder if we in journalism fetishize story length. Both in favor of long stories (which are seen as better by reporters) and shorter ones (which are often valued by digital-centric folks). It seems like this comes up often - there's a push for shorter stories, because nobody has an attention span online anymore, and then there's a counter push for longer stories, because #longform works online and there are no space requirements, and back and forth. I remember hearing stories at Gannett about a one-time rule where no stories were allowed to jump off the section front (meaning they'd all have to be 10-inches long), and two former colleagues told me they remember in the past few years Gannett have a "no-more-than-two-stories-jump" rule.
Here's the thing: A 400-word story is not inherently better than a 750-word story. The longer one could be bloated with "empty calories," but the shorter one could also be seen as a nutritionally devoid nugget.
I tell my students all the time that a story should be as long as it needs to be. Sometimes that's 400 words. Sometimes that's 750. Sometimes, that's 3,000. Story length as an important concept is a print ideal — my editor had to know layout X-amount of space for my story, and I had to fill that physical space. That's less of an issue now.
But more importantly, there's always a subtext to these discussions that shorter stories - or longer ones - are what's going to save journalism. That we've been doing it all wrong all these years, and that if we write shorter - or longer - that will save us. It's a preposterous notion.
There are important conversations to have about how we present news to readers. One of the core findings of my dissertation is the idea of the story (what we think of as a traditional story) vs. the stream (the constant flood of information online). Circa has done wonderful things by focusing not on articles but on short updates to stories (I hate the phrase 'the atomic unit of journalism, but this is where it comes into play). But talking about story length distracts from that larger conversation. It also obscures the fact that the biggest problems facing journalism are economic. Advertisers aren't paying as much to reach news audiences anymore. There's less incentive for consumers to pay for news. These combine to create an economic disruption that the industry is still navigating.
Those are the issues we need to be obsessing about as educators, readers and journalists - not our word count.